Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith

In a nutshell

1. What is Appreciative Inquiry?

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an approach to organisational change that focuses on doing more of what is already working, rather than on trying to diagnose the causes of problems. It engages people at all levels to create change by focusing on the core strengths of an organisation, then using those strengths to reshape the future.

  • Originating in analytical work undertaken at a healthcare facility in the 1980s, it is now used worldwide by organisations, non-profit bodies, churches and government institutions.
  • Some high profile examples include ANZ Bank, BAE Systems, British Airways, GTE Telecommunications, Roadway Express, John Deere Harvester, McDonald’s and NASA.


2. Three assumptions underpinning AI

Three assumptions underpin AI:

  • In every human situation, something works
  • The act of focusing on the positive influences the outcome
  • We have more confidence in the future when we carry forward the achievements of the past


3. AI compared with traditional problem-solving

The traditional approach to change management or organisational development is to look for the problems, do a diagnosis and then look for the solutions.

  • Identifying and fixing one problem can lead to other.
  • Totally replacing a system means that what is good may be lost.
  • Appreciative Inquiry starts by looking at what’s working, and aims to build on it, so its users are much more likely to retain the best of what is already there when designing a new system.
  • The method aims to get input from as many diverse voices as possible, ideally from everyone who is affected by the change, which breeds involvement and ensures all stakeholders are included.
  • Problem-solving tends to seek to restore ‘acceptable’ levels to the system, whereas AI opens up new possibilities for results that are exceptional rather than acceptable.


4. Five principles of Appreciative Inquiry

  • The constructionist principle: any objective reality underpinning our experience within our organisation is obscured by the subjective reality of the social constructs we use, our beliefs and interpretations, our associations, and our expectations.
  • The poetic principle: we can choose what we study about the ‘open book’ that is the organisation. Since companies and teams are ‘social constructs’, we don’t have to repeat stale old narratives.
  • The simultaneity principle: the observer is not separate from the system being observed. As soon as you ask a question it has an effect – big or small and often unpredictable – on the system being studied. The inquiry is already the intervention.
  • The anticipatory principle: our expectations of the future – and therefore of what we believe is possible – are constantly shaped by our conversations.
  • The positive principle: large-scale change requires large amounts of positive affect (emotion); positive questions and positive focus are a way of creating this.


5. The ‘5D’ model

The 5D model is the most widely-used format for Appreciative Inquiry:

  • Definition – this determines the area to be inquired into and sets a direction for what is to be achieved
  • Discovery – now we look for instances of exceptional performance, for times when people felt alive, engaged and worthwhile, and when they produced great results and achievements to be proud of
  • Dream – the people involved in the inquiry (ideally everyone in the organisation, plus representatives of outside stakeholders) co-create a vision of the organisation’s ideal future
  • Design – we develop options for bringing the Dream vision, or at least parts of it, into reality
  • Delivery – we commit to taking the actions we have selected from the design stage in order to make the dream happen.


6. Definition

The Appreciative Inquiry process starts with defining an ‘affirmative topic’ or topics. This sets a frame for the area to be inquired into, and a direction for what is to be achieved. The key feature of an affirmative topic is that it is stated positively – the topic is about the desired outcome, rather than the problem. The characteristics of an affirmative topic are

  • It must be positively phrased
  • The topic should not presuppose a particular solution, as that would rule out other potential solutions
  • There should be no more than five topics for a project
  • It must be consistent with overall direction of the organisation
  • Choosing the topic should involve representatives of the people it affects – diversity of input is essential.


7. Discovery

The key aim of the discovery stage is to discover the best of ‘what is’ in relation to the topic under investigation by recalling times of excellence – times when people have had a sense of being really effective, engaged and productive. The aim is not to benchmark average performance, but to find the moments of ‘positive deviance’ – examples of exceptionally good performance that stand out from the norm. Having elicited stories of these high points, the aim is also to uncover the unique factors that made the high points possible. It should provide

  • An appreciative understanding of the ‘positive core’ of the organisation or team
  • Improved morale and creative new thinking though the sharing of best practice and examples
  • Enhanced knowledge and collective understanding
  • People starting to make positive changes spontaneously, well ahead of completion of the overall 5D cycle.


8. Dream

The Dream stage of Appreciative Inquiry provides a format for involving all employees (and other stakeholders) in the visioning process. To avoid the creative block problems that often come with starting with a completely blank slate, it is important to undertake the discovery stage first. This will ‘prime’ participants to have more vivid and imaginative ideas for the future, and makes the future vision more credible, since it is grounded in the participants’ solid reference experiences. A possible protocol might run as follows:

  • Ask some questions to get people thinking about the future as if it were already happening
  • Encourage individuals to take a few minutes to reflect silently on what the future could be like
  • Get them to share their visions in one-to-one conversations
  • Share the visions round the table as a group.
  • Get the group to construct some kind of artwork to depict their Dream
  • Translate your images into a powerful, positive, evocatively-worded statement to describe the future as if it’s already true; this is called a possibility statement or provocative proposition.


9. Design

The Design stage is sometimes described as building a bridge from the ‘best of what is’ (revealed, at least in part, in the Discovery stage) to the best of ‘what could be’ (the vision set out in the Dream stage). In order to span that gap, the organisation itself may need to be remodelled to some extent. Methods that can be used at this stage include

  • A fishbone analysis
  • Taking a provocative proposition and working up or down the logical levels
  • The Disney strategy, which separates idea generation into three distinct phases.


10. Delivery

The final phase in the AI process is about

  • Planning and forming action groups to carry forward the actions identified during the design phase
  • Possibly developing detailed action plans
  • Celebrating the learnings identified so far
  • And, most importantly, actually doing it and learning in the process.


11. Implementing an AI project

Every Appreciative Inquiry is different. Your implementation will be shaped by a number of factors, such as the nature of the change you are aiming for, the scope of the inquiry, the timescales, the culture of your organisation and the inquiry topic(s). Given these, it’s up to you to choose the best format for your requirements:

  • Whole system dialogue (one to 12 months)
  • Summit event/open forum (one to four days)
  • Appreciative team building
  • Appreciative team meetings


12. Setting up the planning team

For large scale forms of engagement, the planning team should be no more than 12 people. Depending on the change agenda, they need to be from a variety of levels, disciplines and areas within the organisation to bring diverse perspectives. The planning team has several roles:

  • Scoping the project
  • Designing the AI strategy and developing an interview plan
  • Raising awareness of the project within the organisation
  • Coordinating the various efforts that make up the project
  • Making sure everyone in the organisation benefits from the learnings of the project.

There should be a ‘customer for change’, who is prepared to make it happen.


13. Appreciative interviews

The appreciative interview is the heart of the Appreciative Inquiry process.

  • Assume vitality and health, rather than failings.
  • You are not just gathering data – the questions you ask impact the emotional state of the interviewee.
  • The non-verbal elements of your communication form a meta-message which influences people’s emotional state.
  • You are after stories, not opinions or analysis.
  • The emotions that the interviewees’ stories awake in them will enable them to identify both what is really important about those experiences and what they want for the future.


14.Developing‘provocative propositions

Provocative propositions are short statements that describe the desired future and help people to stay on track. Some clients may find ‘provocative purpose statements’ or ‘possibility statements’ an easier term to understand.

  • They often resemble a motto or slogan, perhaps incorporating metaphor, and should be easy to remember.
  • They must be so vivid and compelling that people feel inspired to make them happen.
  • They describe the destination, rather than specifying how to get there.


15. AI group work facilitation tips

Whether you are the lead facilitator or facilitating at your table, there are key tips for success.

  • Keep things positive! If you hear people getting into complaining or talking about problems, gently remind them that the purpose of the exercise is to focus on what is working and doing more of that, rather than focusing on problems.
  • Keep things to time! Very often you will have less time than would be ideal for an AI event, so it’s essential that each exercise starts on time.


16. Selling the AI approach within the organisation

Appreciative Inquiry is so different to conventional methods of organisational change that some people will find it hard to accept.

  • Make sure that people are aware of examples where AI has already been used successfully elsewhere in the organisation, or relevant examples of similar organisations that have used AI.
  • Get specific on the benefits that the AI programme is expected to bring. If the original change agenda grew from recognised problems, where exactly do the symptoms of these problems show up, and how much are they costing? For example, how much might poor customer care be costing in lost sales?
  • Ask yourself what benefits you might expect from the AI process. If customer care improved to the desired levels, how much would be saved?
  • Think creatively about other knock-on and systemic benefits that might result, so that any unexpected benefits that do happen are noted. For example, improved customer care might also indirectly affect the level of referrals from happy customers.


17. Using AI with your team

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) makes an excellent format for teambuilding, as it is designed to avoid blame and restore morale by reminding participants of what they have achieved and what motivates them, putting them in a better frame of mind to work together to create new ideas for solving problems and improving performance.

  • A day (or slightly less) working through the 5D cycle gives enough time to really go into some depth, reaffirm bonds within the team, and build morale and confidence.
  • Choose the affirmative topic for the inquiry carefully. Often, some variation of ‘How do we work together more effectively?’ will work well.
  • To get the maximum value from the Discovery stage, have people who don’t normally work closely together interview each other.
  • The Dream stage can be an opportunity for people to loosen up and have fun as they create a presentation of their vision.
  • You can use appreciative interviews, without going through the entire AI process, to help a new team to get to know and trust each other quickly, so they can start working effectively together.


18. Appreciative living

Appreciative Inquiry is a way of being in and seeing the world, rather than just another item in the toolkit. Here are some ways of developing an appreciative mindset.

  • Keep a daily ‘gratitude journal’ in which you record things that you are grateful for (no matter how small).
  • Treat problems as challenges – look for what you are grateful about in bad things as well as good.
  • Ask yourself ‘What do I need to learn from this?’ whenever anything bad happens. Asking yourself this question, while creating some space to allow the answer to emerge, will increase your self-awareness and help you to correct anything that you may be doing unwittingly to contribute to the problem.